POLS-490 Senior Inquiry

Document Type

Student Paper

Publication Date



American Politics | Political Science | Race and Ethnicity

Description, Abstract, or Artist's Statement

Just two score and seven years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to leadership in a fight for racial justice and civil rights in America. As Dr. King famously remarked from the confines of a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. King’s powerful words hold true today. Controversies, such as the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner at the hands of officers tasked to protect them, seems to indicate that while progress has been made since the days of Dr. King, racial prejudice and discrimination remain prevalent in contemporary society. When examining racial disparities in incarceration rates, racial prejudice and discrimination can also be seen to have an impact as well. Legal scholar and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander published a well-known hypothesis that the Jim Crow-era racial caste system has been renewed in modern society by the criminal justice system, in particular blaming the War on Drugs as the vehicle for “Mass Incarceration”. Pretext stops and consent searches are just two ways in which Fourth Amendment doctrine has increased the amount of discretion police officers have in investigating drug crimes. Jack Glaser, a scholar in the field of Psychology, has demonstrated that law enforcement officers have implicit racial biases that affect how they enforce the law. The combination of increased police discretion and the existence of implicit racial biases is problematic when looking at a system that incarcerates a much greater percentage of Blacks than it does Whites.

This study will first examine Fourth Amendment doctrine to understand the increased discretion afforded to law enforcement officers. The racial outcomes of the “War on Drugs” and Mass Incarceration in the United States must also be examined to understand the effect of the explosion of incarceration rates on minorities. The issue of implicit racial bias must be brought in to understand, among other major factors, how these racial outcomes have occurred. These steps will enable this study to test the hypothesis that the weakening of the Fourth Amendment and the implicit racial bias of police officers contributes to the disproportionate number of Blacks and other minority groups under the control of the Federal and State Prison Systems.